Poetry After Games
Susan Stewart, Red Rover (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008).
Repeat after me—it is a kind of game in which form is everything, reversal is inevitable and recurrence is a matter of course. I am describing a game of red rover. I am describing the poetics of Susan Stewart, whose recent collection takes its names from that game of ritual and rough exchanges. The ratio of ritual to rough exchange in Stewart’s deceptively ingenuous book is roughly four to one.
The rules of red rover, if you have forgotten or never knew, are these: equal numbers of players arrange themselves on opposite sides of a wide, flat space. The players link hands so that, from above, they form a restive set of parallel lines. The first team to go (as determined by coin toss or cordial agreement) calls out the incantatory rhyme in unison—red rover, red rover, let ___________ come over. The blank I’ve left would typically be filled by the name of a player on the opposing team, has to “tack/across that no man’s land/between the lines.” The one called steps out of formation and begins to run towards the line of the players who chose her. She will aim for the spot she perceives as the weakest. If she is lucky, if the ground slopes slightly in her favor, she will accelerate enough to break apart the hands of two of the players on the opposing team, severing a link in their line. After she barrels through, she may choose a player from the broken line to take back to her own side and link hands with her teammates. If she fails to divide the hands she’s aimed for, she’ll become a link in the team that asked her to run. (“But then you were running, running, toward them, struggling to break them or reaching to join them” )When the outcome has been determined, the teams switch roles. Callers become the called upon and vice versa.
The game continues until the dialectic has been vanquished in favor of synthesis: all the players in one line, hands linked together: “the limit of all that has no limit” (99) Opinions on strategy are divided. The invitation to attack must be considered carefully. To call the player you perceive as the weakest first is a safe bet but could mean you’ll weaken the line prematurely when he fails to break through. To call the strongest is hubris and could lead to a swift loss. But Stewart suggests that, in the end, the net result is the same: “exclusion, inclusion, small changes of perspective” (20). I have never seen or played a game of red rover to the finish. Bruises are inevitable. Other wounds are frequent but only a small fraction are visible.
As a unifying metaphor for Stewart’s collection, red rover accomplishes a lot of work. It is at once child’s diversion, exercise of naïve malice and prelude to a war game. It resembles the old iconic form of battle that placed two armies across from each other and caused them to advance mutually, killing each other at a slow, courtly pace. (We are more civilized now, of course.) In Stewart’s poetry, the word “rover” is, fittingly, a traveling word. It occupies multiple valences of meaning. The rover of the title poem refers not only to the game I’ve described but, in turn, to the planet Mars, the “god of permissions” (20) and the burden of memory.
Questions of space, angle and speed inform both the conceit and the prosody of Red Rover. Stewart scatters words over the page, carving out stark patterns in white space. Long stanzas, short stanzas, formal poems, free verse, poems that divide word from word over stretches of horizontal and vertical space—at first, the collection might seem random or erratic. But that misses the point. Nothing in Stewart’s verse is arbitrary or erratic. (I think it’s even possible, at times, to say that her dedication to form imparts a certain rigidity to her work. “The Owl,” for instance, though it bridles with vivid intellect and images, suffers a little from the almost unrelieved regularity of the iambic meter:
The circuit of the world
belies the chaos of its forms—(the kind
of thing astronomers
look down to write
in books.) (4-5)
Her poetry enamels unabashedly formal structures with artlessness. The organizing principle, the one that trumps every other poetic device she employs, is the line. Radically variant lineation allows Stewart to examine how the unit of the line can shorten or extend, quicken or slow our experience of poetic time, as in the various parts of “Games From Children”:
Before you touch me
I will run.
If I touch you, you
must stop. (17)
To stop too soon is to want
to stop wanting. The hunters have their cunning reason
and go about their work by stealth. Straight
as their arrows, they aim for death, though love
Is what closes the distance. (14)
If Stewart argues for a kind of poetry that is also a kind of game, it is clear that she takes games very, very seriously. The business of what goes on between two lines, whether made of verse or people, matters immensely to the central metaphor of Red Rover. Games with lines have real life consequences and not always pleasant ones: “Someone/would twist and fall crying” (21).
Several poems echo Chaucer and one co-opts a bit of Ben Jonson but, to my ear, the most persistent literary spector in Red Rover is William Blake—Songs of Innocence and Experience and the Marriage of Heaven and Hellespecially. (In a series of sonnetesque fourteen line poems, one is called “there is no natural death, a title that evokes Blake’s “There is No Natural Religion.) Occasionally with mixed results, Stewart stitches the refrains and singsong rhythms of nursery rhymes to complex syntactic reversals. One very fine example in which this kind of faux artlessness works to effect is “Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006”:
Lena, Mary Liz, and Anna Mae
Marian, Naomi Rose
when time has stopped
where time has slowed
the horses wear the rain . . .
Naomi Rose, Lena, and Mary Liz
Anna Mae and Marian
a girl is not a kind of girl
she know her rhyme
she has her name (51)
Like Blake, whose deceptively smooth poems often deliver satire under the cloak of a false morality, Stewart’s transmits sophistication in the guise of simplicity. Skillful riffs on repetition, sonic and thematic, pervade her poems: “War profiteering has many means, including/the sale of poems against war” (49).
Erudition mined from a long academic career mixes with a wealth of sensory observation, as in “The Vision of Er,” in which a rainbow, that trite emblem of promise, becomes something sadder and more sinister—a meditation on the seduction and the necessity of metaphor.
And no one asked
to be a number or a color,
distributed over the things
of this world, no one
asked to be radiance, or
an idea in the mind of another.
Experience turned out to be destiny,
imagination bound only by reversal.
better to be your own shadow
than something you have never
dreamed. Better to be a corpse
on earth than a sack of light
hung in the sky.
The poems that expand the range of their precise imagery with intricate fugues of abstraction are some of my favorites. I like abstraction, so long as it’s to the point. You may disagree.
For Stewart, as for Blake, innocence is a problematic state. How do we define it? Is the quality desirable? Sustainable? Significant? Red Rover puzzles over these questions from multiple angles. Stewart gives us pagan and monotheistic perspectives, summoning up Plato in one poem and Adam and Jesus in others. Preoccupied with the ways we explain the world to ourselves, theologically and otherwise, poems like “The Fall” and “Variations on The Dream of the Rood” draw parallels between the kind of serious games children play and the kind of serious game, full of ritual and arbitrary rules, that religion might seem to some: “In the wood there stood a tree and in the tree there lived a wood/that was a cross without a form.”
Reviewed by Rebecca Porte
Rebecca Porte reads and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her criticism has appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, PN Review and the Boston Review.